By Andrew Mambondiyani
MUTARE, Zimbabwe, March 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Zimbabwe is pushing forward with plans to build four new solar power plants, amid a drought that has battered its ability to generate hydroelectricity.
Severe dry conditions - linked to the El Niño weather phenomenon bringing extreme weather around the world - are affecting big and small producers of hydropower alike.
Phillip Muwungani of Chipendeke village, 70 km southeast of Mutare city, said his community's vision of producing its own clean electricity using water is fading.
Drought has affected water levels in Chitora River which powers the Chipendeke micro hydro plant, making electricity generation erratic.
The plant, which supplies electricity to villagers, a school, a clinic and a business centre, was built under a sustainable energy initiative backed by the ZERO Regional Environment Organisation, the Zimbabwe Energy Council and international development groups.
"The situation doesn't look good," Muwungani said. "We are not sure if it will improve any time soon."
At the national level too, drought has taken its toll on hydroelectric production.
Experts say the Kariba Dam on the border with Zambia, which provides almost 60 percent of Zimbabwe's power, could lose its ability to generate electricity in around six months' time unless water levels improve.
With an installed capacity of 750 megawatts (MW), Zimbabwe's Kariba power plant is now generating less than 285 MW.
Lake Kariba - the world's largest manmade reservoir - is a little over 10 percent full, down from around half at the same time last year, according to the Zambezi River Authority.
Zimbabwe currently imports power from South Africa and Mozambique to help meet demand.
But to lower the risk of a crippling long-term energy crisis, the government has stepped up efforts to lure investors into solar power.
SOLAR HEATS UP
The Zimbabwe Power Company says feasibility studies and engineering procurement are underway for three solar projects at Gwanda, Insukamini and Munyati.
Construction is expected to start this year, at a combined cost of $635 million. Each solar power plant will generate 100 MW.
The projects have been on the cards for some time now as part of government efforts to boost solar energy, but the tenders were cancelled in 2014 due to irregularities in the bidding process. The contracts were re-issued to new companies last year, as the current drought-induced power crisis jolted the government into action.
In October, the government signed a deal with Intratrek Zimbabwe to construct the Gwanda solar project in partnership with Chinese company CHINT Electrics, backed by a $202 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.
Tenders to build solar power plants at Munyati and Insukamini have also been awarded to Chinese firms.
Construction at a fourth solar power project in Marondera, about 70 km east of the capital Harare, will start in September. De Green Rhino Energy, a Zimbabwean joint venture set up by a London-based consultancy, will invest $400 million from German investors in the project, which will start selling electricity to the national grid from the end of 2017 if all goes to plan.
The Marondera solar project should be able to generate 150 MW when it reaches full capacity, but will start with an initial investment of $113 million to produce 50 MW, according to De Green Rhino Energy CEO Francis Gogwe.
The head of the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority, Gloria Magombo, told an energy conference in Harare in December that Zimbabwe needs investment of at least $9 billion to increase its power generation capacity to 5,000 MW by 2030 from around 1,300 MW now.
The country aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services for all citizens by 2030, in line with U.N. goals, Magombo said.
Meanwhile, the government plans to produce 300 MW from solar by 2018. Other energy projects to be completed by that date include extensions at Hwange Thermal Power Station and Kariba South Hydro Power Station, a new hydropower plant at Gairezi, and refurbishment of small thermal plants.
According to the Ministry of Energy and Power Development, Zimbabwe has high solar irradiation which can be harnessed for pumping drinking water and powering lights and appliances in rural communities, generating electricity, and heating water in urban areas.
There is high demand for solar energy systems, especially in remote off-grid areas. But economist Eddie Cross, who is also a legislator for Bulawayo South, says the cost remains prohibitive as much of the equipment is imported, and storage options for solar power are limited.
The government is encouraging local production of solar systems to make them cheaper.
In Zimbabwe, hydro is the most cost-effective way to produce electricity at a cost of 1.5 US cents per kilowatt hour, followed by coal at a cost of 8 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour, Cross said. That compares with 20 to 30 cents per kilowatt hour for solar.
De Green Rhino Energy says its solar project will augment government efforts to expand clean power sources and reduce Zimbabwe's reliance on energy imports, bringing wider benefits.
"Our project will help accelerate economic development in the country," said boss Gogwe.
(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)